It was a typical, rain-drenched August afternoon 33 years ago which greeted the arrival of the aeroplane carrying Patrick Tierney and Thomas Favier at the old Kai Tak aerodrome. As the aircraft finally taxied to a stop after a particularly difficult trip - a journey from London which resulted in several interruptions, including a delay at Rangoon because of the bad weather in Hong Kong - the passengers wearily ambled off the plane and into the terminal. As Mr Tierney and Mr Favier, two fresh-faced, bright-eyed, 21-year-old Irishmen, took their first steps on Hong Kong soil, they, like their fellow passengers on the BOAC aircraft, were dumbfounded. The stormy and stifling weather, the tightly-packed buildings in nearby Kowloon City and the alien yapping of the locals assaulted their senses. The fellow-expatriates who came off the plane comprised a mixed bunch. Some were civil servants sent to this Far East outpost; some came to look for probable fame and fortune. Mr Tierney and Mr Favier were neither; they came with a mission to serve and they were determined to stay for the rest of their lives. More than three decades on, both men, now in their mid-50s, are still in Hong Kong. The humidity is no hindrance to their health any more; communication with locals has become easy with their acquiring of elementary Cantonese. However, they do not work in plush executive rooms like some of their fellow expatriates who came off that flight might do. Robed in white, Mr Tierney and Mr Favier operate from schools, looking into the affairs of adolescent students instead of white-collared employees. Brother Patrick and Brother Thomas, as they are more commonly known these days, were fore-runners of many of the missionary orders in Hong Kong, and are among the longest-serving. They may also be among the last of their kind in Hong Kong; there are no more earnest, devout young men like these arriving at Kai Tak today. For these brothers a long learning process has been essential. While missionaries in the past had to brave stormy weather during their trip to the Far East, their modern successors faced culture shocks instead. 'We were not used to the features of the people at all because we had not had dealings with Asian people before,' recalled Brother Patrick, now local superior of the De La Salle Brothers missionary. 'At first we could not distinguish the Chinese boys in our class. They all looked the same. In class we had to point because we could not pronounce their names. We had been trained to teach but culturally we did not have any preparation at all.' The Reverend Alfred Deignan was one of the priests who left home to work for the order in Hong Kong. Now aged 70 and regional superior of the Society of Jesus, he arrived here in 1953 and has spent four decades teaching in Wah Yan College and its brother school in Kowloon, as well as serving as warden to the Ricci Hall of the University of Hong Kong. 'It was a culture shock - the weather was very hot and adaptation to life was hard,' said Reverend Deignan. 'We started living on Cheung Chau - which was quite poor in those days - and the environment, the food and the language were different.' The concept of missionaries, to those who are well versed in the history of China and Hong Kong, instantly inspires images of bearded Caucasians, dressed in white with Bibles in hand, preaching the word of God to the impoverished and illiterate peasantry in rural territories inland. The history of missionary work in China also documented the persecution suffered by the priests at the hands of the Chinese imperial authorities - or them working as agents for foreign imperialist forces, depending on which version of the story one would like to read and believe. Putting aside the historical arguments, one thing that the missionaries have done, especially in Hong Kong, is to provide services, most importantly education. However, as the colonial age ends and the millennium beckons, Brother Patrick, Brother Thomas and Reverend Deignan are joining an extinct species in Hong Kong. The political factor is not the reason, they insist. 'For us, it was not about 1997 - it is more about numbers,' said Brother Thomas, who has already served as principal to St Joseph's College for 11 years - a comparatively longer stint than his predecessors, who normally held the principalship for four to five years. 'The decline in the number of missionaries - fathers, brothers and sisters - is not confined to Hong Kong. It is a pretty universal phenomenon,' said Brother Patrick. The trend of having smaller families with fewer children and also a tendency of the world becoming more materialistic made fewer people join the church, he said. 'From the late 60s countries which originally sent missionaries found that they themselves needed their own religious people to continue their mission at home.' The decline in numbers of expatriate religious personnel in Hong Kong for the past few years has been obvious. For the De La Salle missionary, there are only 13 brothers left in Hong Kong - Brother Patrick being the youngest at 54 - and only a few of them continue to take part in school affairs. This contrasts starkly with the 60s when in one school alone there might be 10 brothers serving as teachers. The lack of brothers, local and expatriate, has also seen the principal positions at missionary schools going to 'laymen'. For the De La Salle schools, only two out of nine are still presided over by a brother. For Reverend Deignan the situation for the Society of Jesus is similar - the proportion of foreign priests teaching in the three Wah Yan schools has dropped to one-in-10 from a third several decades ago. 'The source of manpower for us was Ireland - but around the 60s they started sending men to Zambia [instead of] Hong Kong,' Reverend Deignan said. 'Another reason is we have fewer people joining the Jesuits in Ireland itself - they have their own commitments so they cannot spare so many people to come.' With the Reverend Sean Coghlan's departure from Wah Yan College last year, all three Jesuit schools have turned the headmaster position to laymen. Both the La Sallians and the Jesuits have tried to localise their order as well. Brother Patrick said the inability to bring over new blood from overseas had forced the brotherhood to try to recruit people from the region - although it was not as successful. 'We were expected to try to survive with our own setup in the hope of getting Asian recruits. We have got some - but not many,' he said. 'We have not given up hope that we will still get some recruits [from Ireland] because you never know the way the world moves and the way God moves.' However, even though religious personnel no longer hold the reins at most of the schools, supervisorship is maintained by the missionaries on most of them, and teachers gradually incorporated into the mission's spirit. 'Missionary schools, by tradition, have projected an image that they have certain values, especially moral values which they will [instil] in the school family as much as possible,' Brother Patrick said. 'The other image is that the schools tend to insist on a certain level of good order and discipline in the belief that you need a certain structure for solid learning to take place.' Reverend Deignan agrees that missionary schools have created their own culture in education but added that a blend of that with the reality of Hong Kong created a stronger educational system: 'My dream is that what is good in Chinese mixed with what is good in Western culture enriches both.' However, he added that religious schools would probably play a less powerful part in the local education arena. Whatever the future holds for the cause of the missionary schools, the missionaries themselves expressed confidence in the future and vow to stay, regardless of circumstances. 'I have not really felt any homesickness here since I probably know more people here than I do back in Ireland,' Reverend Deignan said. Brother Patrick also said he would see out his life in Hong Kong: 'We have our own plot in the cemetery in Happy Valley, where the brothers [of the past] were buried. We live, and we die, here.'